By Larry Hodgson
Question: I bought the plant above from a local garden center and unfortunately no one there was able to identify it. Do you know what plant it is? All I have is a label that says, “Colasanti’s.” Would that help you identify it?
Answer: Thank you for your hint, but the name Colasanti’s refers not to a plant, but a plant nursery. Colasanti’s Farms is a wholesale importer of tropical plants to Canada, so undoubtedly your garden center had the plants delivered from there. There is a branch in Kingsville, Ontario, Colasanti’s Spring Gardens, that is open to the public and indeed, a popular tourist attaction. However, you can’t order from them, as they don’t ship to amateur gardeners.
That said, the plant wasn’t hard to identify. I’ve grown it several times over the years. It’s an ardisia (Ardisia humilis) called both jet berry (as in “jet black”) and shoe-button plant for its black berries. It’s what I call a “lurker”: a houseplant that has pretty much always been available, but only appears in small numbers or for short periods, lurking on the edge of popularity. So, it never gained any lasting following. You’d think store employees would know it, though! How else can they help you grow it?
Growing a Jet Berry
Jet berry is a tropical shrub from Southeast Asia. Although its name, humilis, means short or dwarf, it really isn’t that small. In fact, it is one of the tallest of the some 700 members of the genus Ardisia. It can reach 16 feet (5 m) in height. However, in home situations, you can maintain indefinitely at 4 to 8 feet (1 to 2.5 m). The plant is rather upright in nature, in fact, almost columnar when young, but it can be stimulated to spread more widely by pinching it (removing its growing tips) from time to time, as that encourages lateral branching.
Jet berry is mainly grown for its long, shiny, alternate, elliptical leaves, which are reddish when young.
Its flowers in various shades of pink are discreet, being small and largely hidden by the foliage, but the round berries that are clearly more striking.
The berries go from green to red to black. The flowers seem to self-pollinate, so no manipulation of the delicate flowers is necessary for berries to appear. However, while they can be quite numerous under hothouse conditions, their fruiting in the average living room is usually very sparse.
Do note that, while the fruits aren’t toxic, they’re unpalatable.
Give it good lighting, even full sun during the winter, and high atmospheric humidity. In the photo you sent (at the top of the article), you’ll notice several leaves with damages along the leaf margin. That’s due to dry air, a common problem during the winter months. If you want to avoid this damage, you’ll have to raise the humidity to at least 60% humidity, perhaps by using a humidifier.
Water it according to the golden rule of watering: water thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch. Don’t let it get dry out completely: that can kill it! And maintain normal room temperatures spring through fall. You can give it a slight drop in temperature in the winter, down to 50?F (10?C) at night, but that isn’t absolutely necessary.
What we are generally sold these days are, as in your case, pots crammed with ardisia seedlings. This creates a very nice full effect at the beginning, but the plants soon start to wilt within days of watering, then die back. As a result, the poor jet berry, which could potentially live for decades, is often tossed into the compost after just a few months.
The problem is, of course, overcrowding: too much competition for resources (water, minerals, etc.) and that simply isn’t sustainable in the long term. Read the post Keeping Houseplant Clumps Alive to find out how to fix this all-too-common issue.
A Kissing Cousin
Jet berry has a smaller and more colorful relative that is also grown as a houseplant, coralberry (A. crenata). It has shorter, darker leaves with crenate edges and more abundant, more visible red berries. It needs the same care as jet berry, but is really no more popular. It too remains a lurker, available only occasionally and never having become more than modestly popular.
That’s too bad, really, as with a little attention, either of these ardisias could become the star plants of your collection!
Top photo by Valerie Vigneau.